Rather oddly, there is a poem about Shropshire in England that has always put me in mind of Zimbabwe. One of the telling lines is: “What are those blue remembered hills, what spires, what farms are those?” Anyone who has looked across into Mozambique from Zimbabwe's Eastern Highlands will appreciate that hills can be blue. And farming remains central to Zimbabwe’s destiny, for better or for worse.
I returned to Harare after an 11-year gap. Well-run capital cities can accomplish a very great deal in a decade. Some of the South-East Asian capitals have transformed themselves in half that time. But Harare has barely been able to stand still.
Nonetheless, new businesses are springing up. A buoyant market in the supply of solar panels, portable generators and batteries has been spawned by the inability of ZESA, the state-owned power company, to deliver anything close to a regular supply of electricity. And entrepreneurs willing to operate in this and other government-vacated spaces have been able to make a good dollar-denominated living. That is the US dollar not the now valueless Zimbabwe dollar.
However, central and local government services, be they road building, major infrastructure development or effective policing are nowhere to be seen – even though their provision might reasonably be regarded as the minimum one could expect from a government fastidious about the collection of taxes.
What is entirely absent, in Harare and across the country, is evidence that the current political leadership is prepared to make any case for meaningful inward investment or competition in the region. The positive benefits that can flow from halfway enlightened political leadership are simply not available to Zimbabwe at this time. Ministers who ought to be concentrating their minds on the effective delivery of services are instead engaged in manoeuvring around the issue of succession. And Mugabe, who has seen it all before, lets them.
So, if Harare appears to have at least come through the last ten years, somehow still standing, that is not really the point. It is what might have been that represents an indictment of the ruling party.
There is not much on sale in Duty Free at the airport. But one enterprising assistant was offering to sell some of the Zimbabwe dollar bills that were put into circulation before the currency was abandoned in early 2009. The notes were in close to mint condition.
The one hundred billion dollar and the fifty trillion dollar notes were available for 25 US dollars each. An outlay of $50 would secure the short-lived one hundred trillion dollar (or 100,000,000,000,000) bill. Way more than any of them were worth when inflation, running at 100% a day, wiped out money on deposit and evaporated Zimbabwe dollar-denominated pensions.
On the flight home, the view from the aircraft window brought to mind another of the lines about Shropshire: “That is the land of lost content. I see it shining plain. Those happy highways where I went and cannot come again.”